if I wore the hejab?
Prejudice amongst Iranians
By Hoda Fahimi
January 29, 2004
I and another UC Berkeley student, Pouya Alimagham,
student-teach a two-unit course on modern Iranian politics on behalf
student group: the Iranian
Student Alliance in America. This
past semester, we dedicated the last session of our class to
issues, which concern Iranian-Americans and screened two documentaries:
"Why I Call Myself Persian: Iranians in America" and "A
Place Called Home." A discussion followed in which the
central topic was the mistreatment of Iranians and stereotypes
associated with being Iranian.
Almost every Iranian student in the class had a
story or knew of someone who had been mistreated by other Americans.
to these stories, but I could not contribute with a personal
one. Almost every American that I have ever encountered has
and non-judgmental. These students spoke of Americans who called
them "sand niggers," "camel jockeys," "terrorists" and
so forth. But for me, I never once heard an American refer
to me by any such names.
My exceptionalism could be partly attributed to
the fact that I grew up in Palo Alto-or the bubble as my high school
to call it. A town, which borders Stanford University and
the "farthest place from reality." The people are nice and
the seeming foreigner. I have visited five other states besides
our Golden California and my perception of Americans and
their attitude towards me have never altered.
Fortunate as I have been by the treatment, which
I have received from other Americans, I have not been immune to
However, those who stared or ridiculed me were not some
who cannot locate Iran on the map, but educated Iranians.
I wore a hejab until two years ago and this was reason
enough for every
eye in the room to turn to my direction the minute that
any Iranian setting. Believe me, I did not imagine this;
no one stares now when I enter a room anymore, especially
no longer wear the hejab.
There have been many comments, harsh glares, and
snickerings over the years but there is one incident, which I can
never forget. I was a junior in high school and was
sister and two of my American friends at an Iranian
event. We worked as ushers, standing at the entrance, welcoming
them to locate their seats. It was all fine until a
asked me in Persian when I took his ticket: "Is this
be some sort of Islamic conference?" I did what I was
always do when taken off guard; I said nothing.
I tried to ignore that comment, but then it was
difficult to ignore the fact that Iranians who entered the room
American friend and ask for her help and ignore me.
The Iranians, who I approached to see if they needed
would look the
other way. There was one older lady who didn't speak
tried to guide her to her seat but she brushed me
She walked to my American friend and tried to get
her help but
didn't speak the language, gave up. She stumbled
around for a while, came
back to me and without saying a word gave me her
ticket. I helped her find her seat, she took it and did not
I was by then on the verge of tears. I could not
understand why I was treated as such. It angered
me to think that
Iranians who cannot make the distinction between
ideology and the personal
method of practicing one's religion. It always
interests me when I hear Iranians complain of being labeled
and misunderstood by Americans when many of them
of the same act.
In a sense their prejudice is perhaps worse because
they are targeting
it at another Iranian in a land where they are
both foreign and should therefore be each other's backer
and not destroyer.
Before coming to Berkeley, my friends were almost
all American. This was the me with the hejab.
a lot of things. Now almost all of my friends
are Iranian. But
I do wonder
if these people would have been my friends if
they have met me with a scarf. I also ponder if I would
our Iranian student group if I still wore a hejab.
I am not sure but
I would like to believe my generation of Iranian-Americans
respects and honors the beliefs of others.
There has been much change over the years. Twenty
years ago, my mom was yelled and screamed at
by Iranians when she walked
streets in America wearing a hejab. Four years
ago, I was glared at for doing the same thing.
will embrace one another and respect each other's
personal decision. I hope that we will not
isolate our countrymen
based on their religious beliefs. I acknowledge
the fact that our
community and culture have many imperfections,
but I see much strength
as well. For this reason, I remain hopeful
that we can all improve together.
Hoda Fahimi is a third year student at UC Berkeley, studying
Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies. She is a board
member of the
Iranian Student Alliance
in America (ISAA).
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